NATO ends piracy mission, but says threat growing

BRUSSELS, Belgium_The commander of the NATO flotilla conducting anti-piracy operations off Somalia said Friday the threat to shipping was growing exponentially and a coordinated international response was needed.

Italian Adm. Giovanni Gumiero was speaking as NATO ended Operation Allied Provider, during which its warships successfully escorted cargo vessels bearing 30,000 tons of aid to the troubled nation but failed to prevent a surge in pirate attacks.

"I do believe that the presence of naval units in this area is fundamental to provide security," Gumiero said in a teleconference from the destroyer Durand de la Penne.

The NATO force was dispatched in October after a U.N. request to protect ships carrying World Food Program supplies from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Under U.N. rules, the warships are authorized to use force to thwart attacks but not to free vessels and crews already seized.

The NATO ships have been replaced by a European Union task force code named Operation Atalanta. The EU's first-ever naval mission is scheduled to continue until the end of 2009.

The EU flotilla will have between four and six ships and two to three maritime reconnaissance aircraft. It will use unmanned drones for long-range patrols over the Indian ocean and the Somali coastline.

About a dozen other warships, including U.S., German, and Danish ships, are in the region as part of a separate international flotilla based in Bahrain and engaged in anti-terrorism operations. Several individual nations, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Malaysia and India, also have vessels in the Gulf of Aden.

"We are all working together, fighting the same threat," Gumiero said. "In my opinion, a high level of coordination is very, very important ... because the threat of piracy in this region is growing exponentially."

NATO is considering mounting another naval mission to the Horn of Africa.

Gumiero said deterring pirate attacks has proven very challenging, mainly because it is almost impossible to differentiate between pirate boats and fishing vessels.

"They use the same boats, they wear the same clothes, and if you see these guys they look like ordinary fishermen," he said.

The U.S. is proposing that the U.N. Security Council broaden the mandate to authorize broader military action against pirates not only at sea, but also inside Somalia.